LGBTQ Workplace Issues: Why the majority of LGBTQ workers still hide their identity at work
After the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that marriage is a right guaranteed to same-sex couples, many believed the largest battle for LGBTQ rights had been won.
And while the gains in recognition and legal protections were no doubt significant, same-sex marriage recognition alone couldn’t have possibly resolved a number of longstanding LGBTQ issues – particularly LGBTQ workplace issues.
More than 53 percent of LGBTQ workers hide their identity at the workplace, often citing a persistent feeling of being unwelcome. This identity struggle has detrimental impacts on their health, happiness, and productivity, in addition to businesses’ talent retention and leadership development.
LGBTQ workers face an incomplete array of legal workplace protections.
Many LGBTQ workplace issues stem from the fact that currently, there’s no federal law that explicitly protects employees from discrimination due to their sexual identity, gender identity, or gender expression. Such protections have necessarily come from state laws and federal court cases interpreting the law to protect LGBTQ workers. This patchwork of court rulings and state legislation leaves many vulnerable.
LGBTQ employment discrimination laws vary between states. Only 23 states (in addition to the district of Columbia) bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in both the public and private workforce. All told, nearly half of the U.S. LGBTQ population lives in a state that doesn’t prohibit employment discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity.
This disparity in protecting LGBTQ workers’ rights is cause for alarm.
Research suggests that openly gay job applicants in some industries are as much as forty percent less likely to receive job interviews. Transgender individuals have an unemployment rate three times higher than the national average.
Many in the gay and lesbian community prioritized workplace reform over marriage reform—before the Supreme Court ruling—according to Keith Cunningham-Paremeter in the Florida Law Review.
It is unsurprising that many gay individuals rank workplace protections above marriage rights. After all, not everyone wants a state-sanctioned marriage, but everyone wants to hold down a job.
While this LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace has an undoubtedly negative impact on the social and economic circumstances of LGBTQ people, it’s the subtle social dynamics within workplaces that wreak havoc on their security and sense of belonging.
Americans still have mixed feelings about LGBTQ people and their relationships.
Public approval of LGBTQ individuals has risen dramatically over the past several years. In 2014, 49 percent of respondents to the longstanding General Social Survey said that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” were “not wrong at all,” which represented an all-time high.
As that figure suggests, though, there still exists a large population that perceives LGBTQ relationships to be immoral.
What’s more, negative sentiments towards LGBTQ relationships are pervasive even in individuals who otherwise espouse support for such relationships, according to Tina Fetner, Associate Professor of Sociology at McMaster University.
A number of studies have found that Americans are much more positive toward formal rights than they are toward informal privileges, such as public displays of affection, revealing that acceptance of lesbian and gay sexuality is still incomplete.
This dynamic was well-observed in a Human Rights Campaign Foundation report. In it, a large-scale survey of LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ workers revealed that 81 percent of non-LGBTQ respondents indicated that their LGBTQ coworkers “should not have to hide their identity.” Despite the seeming acceptance of these identities, 70 percent of the very same pool of respondents indicated that talking about sexual orientation at the workplace is “unprofessional.”
What this declaration doesn’t account for, though, is the social pressure on all employees to reveal their identity through day-to-day casual conversations with coworkers. For instance, the same survey found that conversations regarding social lives occur on a weekly or daily basis for 84 percent of respondents, with 65 percent saying the same about conversations on relationships, and 36 percent about sex.
This constitutes a “double standard,” according to the report’s authors:
When sharing the same day-to-day anecdotes with coworkers, LGBTQ people are seen as over-sharing, or forcing their “lifestyle” upon coworkers. At worst, LGBTQ workers’ stories are seen as inappropriate, where the same stories told by non-LGBTQ workers are simply (seen as) innocuous personal facts.
The consequences of this double standard go beyond skipping inconsequential-seeming small talk. Because casual conversations are a large part of how relationships are built in workplaces, being unable to participate can, “Erode valuable rapport with co-workers, managers and would-be mentors,” according to Human Rights Campaign.
It’s this ongoing identity maintenance that Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, suspects is partially responsible for why closeted LGBTQ workers are 16 percent more likely to say they felt stalled in their careers.
For LGBTQ worker Erika Karp, maintaining the secrecy of her lesbian identity was a daily challenge.
“You have to devote a huge amount of psychic energy to being closeted — changing pronouns, switching names. I did that for years,” Karp recalls, all the while knowing that coming out could jeopardize her investment-banking career. “It was torture.”
The combination of the stress of hiding their identities, loss of advancement opportunities, and often pervasive negative sentiments about their identities help create a pervasive sense of isolation among LGBTQ workers.
The negative impact of non-inclusive workplace cultures ultimately proves a detriment to employers. Overall, employee engagement amongst LGBTQ workers is 30 percent lower than their cisgender counterparts, according to Human Rights Watch, while one in five LGBTQ employees report they were already considering leaving their job.
“Now that we live in more inclusive times, where people know they can pick and choose employers, there’s a high likelihood of a costly brain-drain among LGBTQ top talent,” said Nicole Raeburn, author and University of San Francisco professor. “They will simply go elsewhere rather than work in a closeted environment.”
Effective strategies for creating a more inclusive work environment.
If there’s a silver lining for HR and compliance professionals looking to create a more inclusive environment that prevents sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace, it’s the increased workplace loyalty, productivity, and happiness of LGBTQ workers in inclusive environments, according to Human Rights Watch. One in four LGBTQ employees surveyed reported that they’ve stayed in a job specifically because of its inclusive environment.
In addressing LGBTQ workplace issues, anti-discrimination policies and employee resource groups (ERGs) are often the first efforts companies take to better establish a more inclusive environment. Human Rights Watch warns, though, that such efforts don’t always send their intended message.
About half of polled LGBTQ workers say that enforcement of non-discrimination policies depends upon their supervisor’s overall feelings about LGBTQ individuals, and while 67 percent said they felt “very welcomed” by their ERG, 31 percent reported feeling only “somewhat welcomed.”
A number of other effective inclusion policies and efforts can successfully create a more welcoming environment:
- Mentoring programs that actively match participants across genders, races, ages, and sexual identities
- Focus on inclusivity in work-family initiatives to explicitly include non-traditional families.
- Creating an inclusive dress code that avoids gender stereotypes and enforcing it consistently.
- Proactive diversity programs that require the participation of the entire organization—not solely Human Resources—which should also feature diversity and inclusion training.
- Pursuing targeted recruiting programs.
- Scrubbing internal communication for language and imagery that assumes heterosexual families and relationships as the norm
- Educating employees though inclusion training that advocates for more inclusive language
- Talk with employees of various genders, sexualities, and gender expressions about what would help them feel more included
Removing the various pressures LGBTQ workers feel to hide their identities may appear intimidating to HR and compliance professionals. That effort, though, is far from an uphill battle.
As said by a participant in a recent study on LGB TQ ork-life balance, inclusionary struggles are most often caused by a lack of awareness, not malicious intent.
“I don’t think our organizations want to hurt us. They just don’t know that we’re here.”